Not playing Malcolm Butler had domino effect for Patriots
Malcolm Butler certainly wasn’t perfect this season. He was shaky in coverage at times, and he didn’t always seem to have his head in the game.
We’ll never know if the Patriots would have won Super Bowl LII if Butler had played more than his one special teams snap. But the Patriots could have used him.
Consider the domino effect of not having Butler in the lineup.
Butler being on the sideline moved Eric Rowe to the No. 2 cornerback spot, where he allowed a 34-yard touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, and a 15-yard catch on third and 12 to Torrey Smith.
It moved Patrick Chung to slot cornerback, where he trailed speedster Nelson Agholor for most of the game. Chung played fairly well, but Jeffery beat him off the line of scrimmage and caught a 22-yarder on an Eagles’ touchdown drive in the second quarter, and then Chung allowed a 24-yard fade pass to Agholor late in the third quarter. Butler should have been the one defending the slot, and Chung’s skills should have been used elsewhere.
Chung could have been used to cover Zach Ertz, who caught 4 of 5 passes for 51 yards, four first downs, and a touchdown on third down. Chung could have been used to cover Corey Clement, who had two catches for 77 yards and a touchdown on third down, including a 55-yard backbreaker. Chung could have been used as an extra run defender in the box, a role he excelled in all season.
Instead, Devin McCourty was used to cover Ertz for most of the game, and he had his ankles broken on Ertz’s winning slant touchdown. McCourty should have been used in center field, or covering the running backs.
Instead, Jordan Richards came in for 16 snaps to cover the running backs. He allowed Clement’s 55-yard catch (blowing the coverage and missing the tackle), and a 19-yard catch to Ertz on third and 7.
Butler’s benching also meant that rarely used cornerback Johnson Bademosi came into the game when Chung got hurt. Bademosi, not nearly as fluid or quick as Butler, covered Agholor in the slot on third and 6. He was in position to tackle Agholor for a 2-yard gain over the middle but let him slip away for a 17-yard gain. That catch jump-started an 85-yard touchdown drive that put the Eagles ahead, 29-19.
Again, we’ll never know if Butler’s presence would have won the game for the Patriots. But considering they allowed 41 points and 538 yards, Butler couldn’t have made it any worse.
Other observations after rewatching the game:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ Crazy as it is to say when the Patriots scored 33 points and amassed 613 yards, but the story of Sunday’s loss was the missed opportunities for the Patriots’ offense.
They had to settle for a field goal on the opening drive after getting second and 4 at the 8-yard line. On the second drive, they got to first and 10 at the 17, went run-run-run, and then missed the field goal. On the third drive, they reached third and 5 at the Eagles’ 35, then missed on the trick play to Tom Brady and on a deep fade to Rob Gronkowski. The Brady trick play was a touchdown — or close to it — with a slightly better throw from Danny Amendola.
That’s 3 points in three drives when they easily could have had 9, 13 or even 17, and it forced the Patriots to play from behind for most of the game.
There were more missed opportunities in the second half. Obviously, the strip-sack ruined their chances at a comeback. And on the final drive, starting at the 9, the Patriots wasted a bunch of time by throwing three straight incompletions before getting going.
■ The Eagles mostly played man-to-man coverage against the Patriots’ receivers, yet weren’t able to get physical at the line of scrimmage, and the Patriots had no issues working their way open for Brady. Surprisingly, the Eagles used Malcolm Jenkins to cover James White out of the backfield, while most of the defense took turns with Gronkowski. Cornerback Ronald Darby covered Gronkowski the most, and he was in coverage on both of Gronk’s touchdowns, but the Eagles also double-teamed him with linebackers and safeties.
The Eagles switched to zone coverage briefly to start the third quarter, but Gronkowski started shredding them with consecutive catches down the seam, and they switched back to man.
■ It felt like the Patriots used a lot of no-huddle to catch the Eagles off balance, but it wasn’t as much as we expected. They went no-huddle on just nine plays throughout the game, and most of the time the Patriots ran the ball to try to catch the Eagles off guard (which they didn’t). Brady was 2 for 3 for 16 yards and a first down, while White had four rushes for 15 yards. There was also a penalty on Gronkowski, and a 12-men penalty on the Eagles.
■ It’s hard to be too critical of Brady, especially after he led the Patriots to touchdowns on four straight drives (excluding the one at the end of the first half). But Brady wasn’t totally on point, as he had a handful of throws that were significantly off target. He tried to force one into Gronkowski in the end zone that was well behind the receiver and almost intercepted. He missed a wide-open Gronk streaking down the seam to start the third quarter. And Brady threw behind White on a slant pass that was almost deflected and intercepted.
Whether Brady’s hand still bothered him or he was just inaccurate, he was definitely off with a few of his throws.
■ One area where Brady excelled again was against the blitz — mostly. Five of the Eagles’ seven blitzes came on third or fourth down, and Brady completed 4 of 6 passes for 60 yards, with three third-down conversions and another on a defensive holding call. But one of the miscues was costly. The Eagles blitzed five on fourth and 5 from the 35, and the pressure forced Brady to throw early and not step into his deep sideline fade to Gronkowski, which fell incomplete. Given the game being indoors, it was surprising that Bill Belichick opted to go for it on fourth and 5 rather than attempt a 53-yard field goal.
■ Amendola continued his incredible run of clutch play. He was the Patriots’ leading receiver on third down, catching 4 of 6 targets for 98 yards and four first downs (six of Brady’s 10 throws on third down went to Amendola). He added a 13-yard catch on fourth and 10 late to keep hope alive.
Amendola had a huge 50-yard catch on a coverage breakdown by the Eagles, and caught a 30-yarder on a play-action drag across the middle in the fourth quarter. Chris Hogan had a 28-yard gain on the same play in the first quarter, with a long catch-and-run made possible by a block from — who else? — Amendola.
■ We don’t mean to impugn the injured, and we hope Brandin Cooks is OK after taking that nasty shot from Jenkins. But he displayed a shocking lack of awareness on his two big plays and exemplified why we weren’t his biggest fan this season. On the third-and-2 end-around — a play that Brady “alerted” to at the line of scrimmage — Cooks had a ton of space and just one defender to beat in the open field, safety Rodney McLeod. All Cooks had to do for the first down was race to the pylon or lower his shoulder and run into McLeod. Instead, he jumped into McLeod’s arms, the worst decision he could have made.
And on his 23-yard catch, Cooks ran around like a chicken until Jenkins popped him with a blind-side hit. Catch the ball, get upfield. It’s not that difficult.
■ Great game from the Patriots’ offensive line. The run blocking was excellent, and the Patriots should have stuck with the run more, calling 21 runs against 51 passes. The Eagles have a dominant interior defense, but instead of trying to push them back, the Patriots moved them sideways, with “wham” blocks by Gronkowski and James Develin, and excellent lateral blocks from David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Joe Thuney. The offensive linemen also did an excellent job getting to the second level and onto the linebackers, whether it was on runs up the middle, White’s 26-yard touchdown run, or the big 46-yard screen pass to Rex Burkhead.
■ Brady was sacked just once and hit nine times in 50 dropbacks, and there weren’t too many occasions where he had to bob and weave away from pressure.
Of course, the one sack was a killer. Brady was locked onto Gronkowski running down the middle, but he was double covered. Brady hesitated just long enough for Brandon Graham to catch Mason flat-footed and squeeze past him to get to Brady.
What happened next was a bit of magic. Graham managed to get his hand perfectly on the football, knocking it clean out of Brady’s hands and shooting it several yards backward. The ball bounced off Derek Barnett’s leg, Barnett kicked the ball into the ground, the ball bounced up perfectly, and Barnett snagged it out of the air for an easy recovery. It’s not often you see a football bounce so perfectly. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
When the Eagles had the ball . . .
■ The Patriots dared Nick Foles to beat them. And boy, did he beat them.
He made beautiful throws to the sideline on fades and deep outs. He squeezed the ball into tight windows over the middle. His deep touchdown passes to Jeffery and Clement were put right on a dime. He picked apart the Patriots’ zone and found the right matchups to exploit when they were in man.
And Foles shredded the Patriots on third down. He was 11 of 14 for 169 yards, 2 touchdowns, 9 first downs, and a near-perfect 156.5 passer rating.
■ The Eagles were downright Patriot-like in beating the Patriots. Bold trick plays, tremendous execution, exploiting matchups, staying aggressive — it was right out of the Belichick playbook.
Foles thrived against the blitz, completing 8 of 12 for 122 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
Ertz’s winning touchdown was a beauty, with the Eagles clearing out the left side of the field with motion, and isolating Ertz vs. McCourty. The Foles touchdown catch was an incredibly gutsy call, and the execution was flawless. It’s hard to blame any of the Patriots for allowing that one.
■ One area where the Patriots could have used Butler — tackling. It was atrocious, and Butler is one of their best and most physical tacklers.
We counted 14 missed tackles (12 in the first half), including four from McCourty, three from James Harrison, two from Duron Harmon, and one each from Malcom Brown, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Richards, and Bademosi. Bademosi’s missed tackle allowed Agholor to convert a third down on a drive that ended in a touchdown. Richards missed a tackle on Clement’s big catch, and Harmon got flattened on the same play by a stiff-arm.
■ McCourty had a rough game, choosing the wrong hole on LeGarrette Blount’s 36-yard run and missing a tackle on Blount’s 21-yard touchdown. Roberts continued a season-long trend of overrunning plays, allowing Clement to gain an extra 10 yards on a screen pass and Blount to rumble 21 yards for his touchdown.
■ One area where the Patriots thrived was against bootlegs, play-action and run-pass-option plays. Harrison and Van Noy didn’t bite on fakes and maintained the edge throughout, not allowing Foles to roll free and find his receivers. Foles only completed three of his first nine play-action passes, though one was the 34-yard touchdown to Jeffery.
■ Rowe didn’t have as bad a game as Patriots fans blame him for. He had a great pass breakup against Jeffery on a 2-point conversion, and another on Smith. But Jeffery caught three passes for 73 yards and a touchdown against Rowe, and he didn’t have another catch over the final 2½ quarters once Stephon Gilmore was primarily matched up with him. The Patriots should have used this matchup from the start.
■ Clement took advantage of the Patriots’ lack of speed, as both of his big catches came on wheel routes out of the backfield. On the 55-yarder, Richards crashed down hard in the backfield to try to take Clement out, missed, got burned on the wheel route, then whiffed on the tackle. And on the 22-yard touchdown, Marquis Flowers was in pretty good position, but it was an incredible throw by Foles and catch by Clement.
■ Not a banner day, by any means — a missed chip-shot field goal, a missed extra point, shaky kickoff coverage, and an asinine kickoff return at the end of the game.
■ On the missed 26-yard field goal, Joe Cardona had an uncharacteristic low snap, the ball was bobbled by holder Ryan Allen, and Stephen Gostkowski wasn’t able to knock the kick through from a standing position.
■ The missed extra point was a bad hook to the left. Gostkowski has been kicking extra points from the left hashmark since he developed a bit of a slice during the 2016 season, and for whatever reason he overcorrected on this PAT.
■ And that gimmick kickoff return at the end of the game was incredibly costly. The Patriots started at the 9 instead of around the 25. Just head upfield and get as many yards as you can.